Thanksgiving Day floats its own kind of memories for me: Pumpkin Pie, Turkey, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, NFL football–that awkward moment when my cousin Chris and I accidentally fired a rifle inside Grammy’s house. The season brings collective Americana into conversation with the past, as some children wear collars made from construction paper and buckles made from aluminum foil, while others wear brown paper bag buckskin and feathers. The story of the first Thanksgiving is one of the most popular pieces of American folklore. It evokes something we like to think to be true of ourselves as Americans– having been established on religious freedoms by resourceful, independent, hardworking pioneers–but is it true? As a descendant of both the Pilgrims (via John Alden) and indigenous First Nation peoples (Chickasaw on my mother’s side, Cherokee on my father’s) it is important to remember the nuanced reality that is very much a part of our American history.
The Myth of Thanksgiving Day, 1621
Everyone thinks they know the story… The year was 1620 and the Pilgrims traveled to the New World aboard the Mayflower to flee religious persecution in England. Upon arriving, they began to starve those first few months in Plymouth colony. To make matters worse, it was winter, and half of the population died. Eventually the Pilgrims were saved by a Patuxet “Indian” they called “Squanto“–a man who had survived enslavement in England by previous settlers, but eventually escaped back to his homeland where he providentially engaged the Pilgrims in their own native language. Squanto teaches them how to sow corn and other crops, and the harvest is plentiful–the Pilgrims are elated! Squanto negotiates a treaty between the Pilgrims and the local indigenous tribe called the Wampanoag Confederacy, and they both begin to flourish. Giving thanks to God for their survival, freedom, and harvest, both Pilgrims and Indians have a great feast day in 1621 that they call “Thanksgiving Day,” and the rest is history.
According to this folk history, the American Thanksgiving Day celebration exists ever after to give thanks to God for providing for these settlers who fled Europe from religious persecution. The holiday seems to celebrate the friendship and hard work of the Indians and Pilgrims, who shared together in a spirit of unity. Most importantly, it seems to indicate that through a series of fortunate and providential events, God had ordained that the Pilgrims come and establish what would soon become the United States of America.
Well, at least that’s what we’ve been told. The truth is that this story is a fairy tale, a half-truth, a washed over version redone to make us believe something else. Some people might call that propaganda. Others call it harmless.
In actuality, everything we think we know about Thanksgiving Day comes from bits and pieces of the writings of “Pilgrim” Governor William Bradford‘s “Of Plymouth Plantation” history, and a letter written by “Pilgrim” Edward Winslow (called “Mourt’s Relation“) among a very few other sources.
Here’s Edward Winslow’s account of the encounter in 1621-
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
As good English citizens, the Pilgrims would have already been keenly aware of the “Thanksgiving” holy day back home. National Geographic Magazine points out this was not in fact a “Thanksgiving Day” that the European settlers would have been well aware of, but was a “harvest festival”-
In 1841 Boston publisher Alexander Young printed Winslow’s brief account of the feast and added his own twist, dubbing it the “First Thanksgiving.”
In Winslow’s “short letter, it was clear that [the 1621 feast] was not something that was supposed to be repeated again and again. It wasn’t even a Thanksgiving, which in the 17th century was a day of fasting. It was a harvest celebration.”
What we now refer to as the “Pilgrims” were really a group made up of “Separatists” (a small group of religious radicals who wanted to “separate” from the Church of England) and “Strangers” (a term the Separatists used to describe anyone who wasn’t a Separatist, mostly consisting of adventurers, sailors, farmers, etc). Strangely enough, these weren’t even referred to as “Pilgrims” until 170 years after they landed.
Clarifying Some Misconceptions
It is true that the “Pilgrims” came over from The Netherlands to the New World aboard the Mayflower, but they also attempted to take another ship in addition, called The Speedwell which wasn’t seaworthy. There were 102 people on board the Mayflower, and of those seeking religious asylum, there were only 35! It’s important to understand that the Pilgrims already had religious freedom while in Holland…that is why they moved there from England in the first place. They did not leave The Netherlands because of religious persecution, rather, they believed their children were being corrupted and their English language and traditions were being overcome by the local influences. Being the poor common people they were, the Pilgrims could not afford to underwrite the immense journey to the royal colonies in America, so they came to the New World on a commercial venture with investors appropriately called “The Merchant Adventurers.” The plan goes that the investors bankrolled the Pilgrim’s move to America, where they would in turn establish a colony that would produce enough profit to pay off the debt. And the situation looked increasingly better to the Pilgrims, who were to be a law unto themselves, teach their children in their own English ways, and escape the Church of England–all the while the investors made a profit– everyone was happy.
It is true that the Pilgrims did meet an English speaker they called Squanto when they arrived (his actual name is Tisquantum). But most of us fail to recognize that the Pilgrims also met another native who spoke English, named Samoset. In fact, the Pilgrims met Samoset before they ever met “Squanto.” It was Samoset who introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who in turn introduced them to his adopted tribe, the Wampanoag.
Squanto’s story is full of heartache and misery, for it was his first tribe (Patuxet) that was wiped out by English settlers who arrived in 1614. These settlers started what would become a uniquely American tradition of giving blankets infected with viruses (like smallpox) to the indigenous Americans in the guise of a gift. Because these native peoples had not built an immunization against the many infectious diseases which ravaged the European continent for centuries, they began to die off in large numbers. Squanto survived, but was loaded onto a ship for Spain and sold into slavery. He was bought by Catholic monks who helped him make his way back to England where he worked as a shipwright. Eventually, he found his way back to the Americas only to find upon his arrival, that his tribe had been eradicated. It was upon the ruins of his native Patuxet tribe that the Pilgrims now built Plymouth colony. It is also true Squanto was commissioned by the Wampanoag sachem, Massassoit to teach the Pilgrims how to plant and grow corn. It is true that Squanto helped to translate for the Pilgrims and made a treaty with the Wampanoags — and it is also true they had a great feast together celebrating their treaty, food, and provision.
The Pilgrims Would Have Died Without “Squanto”
If it weren’t for Squanto, and more importantly, for Massasoit (the Wampanoag sachem) the Pilgrims would never have made it. Massasoit helped provide food for the Pilgrims out of his tribe’s own store houses. He forgave the Pilgrims for robbing graves of his tribesmen who were buried with corn after the settlers first arrived (a scenario which the Pilgrims thought fortuitous and providential). But Massasoit signed a treaty with who he thought was King James(although King James never intended or authorized the Pilgrims to offer treaties) and became a political ally of the English settlers- much to the aid of Plymouth. The Wampanoags were those indigenous peoples who brought lobsters, clams, corn, clams, eel, fish, succotash, squash, pumpkins, turkeys and deer to the feast.
The harvest of 1621 was not plentiful, in fact the Pilgrims were starving during that year. Most of them were not producing enough to feed their families, and so the Pilgrims resorted to a sort of communistic approach to crop growing just to survive.
In the history ‘Of Plymouth Plantation,’ the governor of the colony, William Bradford, reported that the colonists went hungry for years, because they refused to work in the fields. They preferred instead to steal food. He says the colony was riddled with “corruption,” and with “confusion and discontent.” The crops were small because “much was stolen both by night and day, before it became scarce eatable.” It seems that between 1620-1623 the Pilgrims had hardly enough to eat, let alone to send back to England to repay their Merchant Adventurers.
But the harvest of 1623 was different. Suddenly, “instead of famine now God gave them plenty,” Bradford wrote, “and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God.” Later, he wrote, “any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.”
Bradford had abolished their communistic approach to planting corn, and instead divided up parcels of land to each family, or individual. The rule was “you eat what you grow,” and this changed everything.
Eventually in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn. In fact, they absolutely HAD to start exporting because they were up to their eyeballs in debt. The “Merchant Adventurers” (also known as the London Company) who loaned them the means to come to the New World were constantly pressuring the Pilgrims to produce more profit.
In order to produce more, they needed more colonists, and more land, and they needed to diversify their commodities. But to do this, they needed to ride the land of its indigenous occupants. Tensions increased as the New England colony started manufacturing wampum, the commodity most used like currency by the Native Americans, thus flushing the market with inflation.
Where Does the Real Thanksgiving Day Originate?
The closest thing we have to the foundation of “Thanksgiving Day” in America comes not in 1621 but later in 1637, in a place near what is now West Mystic, Connecticut (New England colony).
The Pilgrims of Plymouth had started trading in furs about the time when New England was settled by the Puritans, and soon the colonies of New England and Plymouth joined forces to oust their indigenous competition…literally. Aside from the fact that the Puritans were the “purists” of the Church of England, and the Pilgrims were the “separatists,” they were first Englishman. But the English weren’t the only operation in town. The Dutch had established a colony and started trading near New York. Soon the English were edging in onto the Dutch colonial territory. The resulting hegemonic struggle is called the “Pequot War” by historians. The same freedom loving, religious asylum seeking Christians went to war with other Christians over the local fur trade, in what looked more like gangland than Jesus Christ.
It is true that the colonial settlers often took advantage of the existing turf wars being waged between competing Native American tribes through battles by proxy. And it is within this context that America get’s her first Thanksgiving Day.
According to the private papers of Sir William Johnson (who was the British Indian agent for the New York colony for 30 years), a local Pequot tribe was meeting at their village for their annual Green Corn Festival dance, on May 26.
The Pequot village only had two entrances/exits, and the force of English and Indian allies set their marauders near both doors. The 600-700 Indians inside were surrounded and slaughtered by mercenaries hired by the English and Dutch who were expanding their empires in the New World. As it turns out, most of these victims were old men, women and children because (unbeknown to the English) the Pequot warriors were simultaneously mounting an invasion of Hartford.
We don’t tell that story to our school children because of how gruesome it is– The natives were ordered to come out of their fortification, and as they did, they were shot. Many naturally refused fearing later retribution, and so the Colonists burnt the building down with all of the inhabitants inside. Those who tried to climb over the wall were either shot or hacked to death by the colonial citizen soldiers.
Writing later of the event, Pilgrim Governor William Bradford called it “a sweet sacrifice…to God”. The very next day, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “a day of thanksgiving,” and the rest is history. It seems that this day was commemorated by the Governor or President for the next 100 years as a great day of victory and thanksgiving to God.
William Bradford, in “Of Plymouth Plantation” described it this way–
“Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatche, and very few escaped. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and gave them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”
Puritan Minister of New England, Cotton Mather, remarked that though the slaughter was immense, it wasn’t good enough to scare the Puritans into rigid obedience to Puritan law–
“It was supposed that no less than 600 souls were brought down to Hell that day…yet all this could not suppress the breaking out of sundry notorious sins.. Especially drunkenness and uncleanness. Not only incontinency between persons unmarried, for which many both men and women have been punished sharply enough, but some married persons also. But that which is worse, even sodomy and buggery (things fearful to name) have broke forth in this land oftener than once. I say it may justly be marveled at and cause us to fear and tremble at the considration of our corrupt natures, which are so hardly bridled, subdued and mortified…..But one reason may be that the Devil may carry a greater spite against the churches of Christ and the gospel here.”
A Harrowing Legacy
Less than 52 years after what we call the “first Thanksgiving Day,” Benjamin Church, a grandson of two passengers who came to America aboard the Mayflower– (who undoubtedly feasted with the Wampanoag Indians during that harvest festival in 1621) hunted down the son of Massasoit. The son of original Pilgrim Edward Winslow, Josiah Winslow (then Governor of Plymouth) commissioned Church to raise a force to combat the son of Massasoit and his fellow natives who had gone to war with Plymouth over the breaking of many land treaties. Church was most effective at converting captured natives into “Praying Indians” and then turning them loose on the colony’s enemies as irregular soldiers.
But Metacom, or Phillip, was an indigenous Christian convert who grew up going to school in Plymouth alongside many of those who would later hunt him. He later became sachem of the Wampanoag tribe after his father’s death. Phillip lead a rebellion of allied tribes against the English settlers because of the injustices of land stealing, trading by coercion, false accusations, and deceptive practices in what is now called “King Phillip’s War.” Benjamin Church’s unit killed Phillip, and after he was brought back to Plymouth by the Pilgrims, where he was drawn and quartered (dragged, emasculated, disemboweled, and sawed into fourths) while his entire family were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Most of the tribes, including the Wampanoag and their allies were also killed during this time.
Roy Cook, American Indian and journalist described the event this way–
In January, 1675 the body of a Christian Native named John Sassamon was found in the frozen pond at Assawompset (Middleboro). An alleged witness identified three Wampanoag men as the murderers of Sassamon. The three were arrested and tried by the General Court at Plymouth because the crime took place under English jurisdiction and the victim, being Christian, was considered an English subject. Rumor circulated that Metacom had commissioned the execution of Sassamon for revealing his plans. In June, a colonist shot and mortally wounded a Pokanoket who had been seen running out of his house. A revenge raid followed in which several English were killed began the war. Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and the Connecticut Colonies mustered their allied forces, and moved against Metacom. However, inept leadership allowed the Pokanoket to get away and raid many colonial towns. The Pokanoket, joined somewhat reluctantly by their Pocasset and Sakonnet relatives, retreated into the interior of Massachusetts where they were joined by some of the Nipmuck and others.
The war spread to the Connecticut valley and the Pokanoket went as far as the Hudson River to recruit allies amongst the Mahican, Abenaki, and others. The colonies, insisting that the Narragansett were acting in bad faith by harboring fugitives, prepared an army of 1,000 men to attack that neutral nation. In December 1675 the colonials attacked the unsuspecting Narragansett, burned their fort, and killed many of the inhabitants, thus driving the Narragansetts into the war on the side of Metacom.
That’s the truth of it. Money, greed, debt, empire, racism, war, violence begetting violence. This isn’t just Thanksgiving Day, this is the foundation of America.
Ironically, none of the first Pilgrims stayed in Plymouth. John Alden (a distant ancestor of mine), Myles Standish, Bradford, Brewster and many others all moved elsewhere in the ever expanding colony. These Pilgrims certainly didn’t participate in the Thanksgiving Day as popular American folklore would have us remember. But they did celebrate a recurring Thanksgiving Day, it was most likely the “Thanksgiving Day” commissioned after the “victory” in Connecticut.
Yet still this story persists… even being used by neo-Puritans today who promote an ethno-centric, quasi-religious, patriotic propaganda that the United States is still that “city on a hill” that God ordained by the Pilgrims. No wonder they still put forth racist, ethno-centric, empirical expansionist, homophobic, “Christian” propaganda. The truth is, the Pilgrims never celebrated what we call “Thanksgiving Day” the way we know it. They celebrated a one time harvest festival that Massassoit and the Wampanoags had been celebrating for years.
Please don’t get me wrong- I truly enjoy our modern holiday. I enjoy spending time with friends and family members enjoying good food and rest and relaxation. It is true that President Lincoln later established a national Thanksgiving Day in Autumn, and that FDR later sanctioned the last Thursday of November as the official American holiday.
We must remember the past and teach the truth to our children. To forget about the past, to purposefully look over what really happened is almost as bad as doing it ourselves. Don’t condone the past. Let’s be honest about it, and look to the future.
- Canadian Thanksgiving: Not much to do with the Pilgrims(suffonsifisms.wordpress.com)
- Be Thankful, But Also Be Mindful of Our History(thepassionatemoderate.wordpress.com)